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January 16, 2012

Hood: Assessing the new hires



After weeks of speculation and rumors, the South Carolina football coaching staff is complete again following the recent hires of Joe Robinson (special teams coordinator and tight ends), Kirk Botkin (linebackers) and Everette Sands (running backs).

Sands, the final piece of the puzzle, joined USC on Monday when his under-the-radar hire was officially announced by the school.

After reviewing the biographies of the three new coaches, it's apparent that Steve Spurrier was looking for one of two attributes in each new hire: coaching experience in the SEC and/or recruiting acumen in the Palmetto State or, if you want to broaden things out, the entire Carolinas.

If you're concerned over the fact that none of the three new coaches qualifies as a "big-time hire," don't waste your time. Stated another way, be careful what you wish for.

Remember, a year ago Florida fans were doing cartwheels over the hire of Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator. They thought Weis would engineer a new course for quarterback John Brantley and the Gators' offense. Well, he didn't. By the time the season was over, Florida fans couldn't wait to toss Weis overboard. Few tears were shed in Gainesville when he left to become the head coach at Kansas.

JOE ROBINSON (Special teams and tight ends): After a merry-go-round of special teams coaches in his first seven seasons at the USC helm, Spurrier hopes Robinson is able to bring some much-needed stability to the position. Since Spurrier became head coach shortly after the conclusion of the 2004 season, five different coaches have guided special teams: Ron Cooper (205), Fred Chatham (2006-2007), Ray Rychleski (2008), Shane Beamer (2007, 2009-10) and John Butler (2011)(Note: Chatham and Beamer served as co-special teams coordinators in 2007).

Since college football coaching is a small fraternity, there is usually a connection between a potential coach and the staff he looks to join. In Robinson's case, he worked alongside Steve Spurrier Jr. at Arizona in 2004. After that, he distinguished himself over the next five seasons as special teams coach for the Wildcats and at LSU (2008-2010).

He took advantage of the tremendous amount of talent at his disposal in Baton Rouge and turned LSU's special teams into the best in the SEC in 2009. Under his direction, Trinton Holliday became a special teams superstar.

So, Gamecock Nation must hope Robinson can work the same magic with Ace Sanders, Damiere Byrd and others. With that type of talent available, kickoff and punt returns appear to be in capable hands.

Of course, Robinson will be judged largely on how well the kickoff coverage unit performs. It has been a sore point for years and nobody has yet broken the code on how to turn that unit into one of the best in the SEC. If nothing else, Robinson will build a large cache of good will if he can somehow get the kickoff coverage team to perform up to capabilities.

KIRK BOTKIN (Linebackers): This hire is less about Botkin and more about Spurrier's faith and confidence in new chief defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Spurrier gushed about Ward when he announced his promotion three weeks ago without beginning the interview process, and his confidence was justified based on the performance of the defense in the Capital One Bowl.

Because of that, I'm sure Spurrier was an eager listener when Ward recommended Botkin for linebackers coach. The two worked together on the Arkansas staff under Bobby Petrino in 2008, Botkin as defensive ends coach and Ward as secondary coach. Sure, Spurrier interviewed him and had the final say, but by that point it was Botkin's job to lose based on Ward's hearty endorsement. He passed the test and got the job. In some ways, is this a leap of faith by Spurrier? Yes.

The best parts of Botkin's resume? His two years coaching in the SEC and his five years playing in the NFL for Jim Mora (New Orleans) and Bill Cowher (Pittsburgh). I've always maintained that at the BCS level you should have at least one assistant with pro football playing experience under his belt. Why? Most players want someone to point the way to NFL riches, so having one coach on staff who reached that level is helpful.

By all accounts, Botkin is a very intense, animated coach on the sidelines. Apparently, his style didn't mesh with Petrino's philosophy, so he resigned following the 2009 season. However, as we have often seen in the past, just because an assistant doesn't click at one job doesn't mean he won't succeed at another.

Although he was plucked from a Texas high school, don't interpret Botkin's hiring as a signal USC is ready and able to make a recruiting move into the Lone Star State. Spurrier shot down the theory when asked about that following Saturday's halftime ceremony, again saying there are plenty of players in the Southeast.

EVERETTE SANDS (running backs): Steve Spurrier hit a home run three years ago with the hiring of Jay Graham, who had a successful three-year tenure here until leaving in December to head back to his alma mater with a three-year contract calling for an annual salary of $225,000 per year ($50,000 raise) in his back pocket.

So, you couldn't blame Spurrier for trying to find another Graham, an up-and-coming coach capable of handling the day-to-day pressure of being at a SEC school. It looks like he uncovered one in Sands.

Clearly, Sands' experience as a native (he grew up in Conway), player (All-Conference RB at The Citadel), student and recruiter in the Palmetto State gave him an important, and possibly, decisive edge in the race even though he has spent just one year coaching at a BCS school.

But Graham came from Miami of Ohio, hardly a college football superpower and had previously coached at UT-Martin and UT-Chattanooga before he joined the USC staff in January of 2009. So, it is possible to make a large leap to the SEC.

Certainly, his eight years (1999-2000; 2005-10) coaching at The Citadel has allowed Sands to develop solid relationships with many high school coaches around the state. He has a reputation of being an outstanding recruiter, and one of his regions of responsibility was South Carolina.

Sands convinced Tyler Knox of Myrtle Beach, the No. 7 prospect in the state, that Raleigh, N.C., was the best place for him to play his college football.

Similar to Graham, Sands emphasizes ball security and gaining the tough yards after contact, two key traits of productive running backs. The best description I've seen of Sands is he possesses "lots of potential." He has been described as an excellent teacher at each of his stops in his 16-year coaching career.

A good coach and good recruiter looking for an opportunity to break into the big-time? Sounds a lot like Graham three years ago.

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D. McCallum


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